Dongha Lee's career has been molded by several unique experiences he's encountered through life's journey. The insight he's gained along the way drives his current projects and distinguishes him from other designers vying for attention in this dynamic, eclectic field.
"I was born in South Korea, but moved to China during childhood and studied at an 'American education'- based international school," said Lee, who now works as an industrial designer at Kohler. "All of the teachers and half the students were American. The other half were mostly Korean, Taiwanese, Singaporean, Japanese and German. Overall, it was a great experience. Early on, it taught me the importance of understanding other cultures and languages.
"My family was very creative in both traditional art and using newer computer-based approaches. My grandfather was one of the few designated masters in pottery; he inherited some of the most important traditional techniques passed down from ancient times. My mother painted, and my father is a computer programmer. He still works for Samsung SDS as one of the first generations of innovators who designed the platform and fundamentals of its system. Watching how the traditional and modern approaches affected my relatives' work and creativity influenced me enough to become an industrial designer, which seems to be a blend of both."
After graduating from school, Lee served in the Republic of Korea Army in Yangju, South Korea. Using his specialized language skills, he became a translator between the US Army headquarters and South Korea's 25th Infantry Division. He worked his way up to sergeant within the troop's Information and Education/Public Relations Department where he organized public relations related events and fairs and designed monthly magazines, posters, character, and museum pamphlets.
After his experiences in the Republic of Korea Army, Lee was accepted as an intern at EDI Design. While the company is based in South Korea, he spent much of his time mainly as a presenter/intern designer for a tower design proposal for Durrat Al Bahrain, an island resort located in Bahrain (Middle East).
"As part of this team, I traveled back and forth and met the board members, including royal families, to present and discuss our ideas," he explained.
Shortly after, he was hired as a part-time industrial designer for LG Hausys. He was part of a creative design team responsible for designing concepts for LG Dios using a new material called Hi-Macs, a type of Thermoformable artificial marble.
"I landed my job at LG thanks to an award I won in a design competition in 2009," said Lee. "It was actually displayed as part of the Milan Furniture Fair later that year. While at LG, I further developed one of the designs that later became one of LG's unique surfacing techniques which has become ingrained into many of their products' designs."
In 2011, Lee earned his bachelor's degree from Seoul National University in South Korea (SNU).
"SNU is known as one of the top universities in Asia along with Tokyo University (Japan) and Tsinghua University (China)," he explained. "SNU's design major requires every industrial design students to focus on product design and relational space design. It was there had I acquired the fundamentals of industrial design."
Shortly after graduating from SNU, Lee moved to Detroit to pursue CCS's MFA program in Interdisciplinary Design. He credits the College for providing an understanding of what it "really" means to be a designer.
"CCS has been an eye opening experience for me, especially for helping me understand what 'design' really is," explained Lee. " SNU taught me the fundamentals, process and technique of design, so I knew how to design before coming to CCS. But the MFA program taught me why, what and when to design. What this means it that the CCS MFA program led me to understand the field not only from the perspective of a single designer, but to see the whole system and structure of the business--management, marketing, engineering, and designing. It showed me how each of these elements are intertwined to help read the past and foresee the future as a whole business to determine the who, what, when, why, and how of a particular design. Thus, as a designer, one needs to understand all of these elements to deliver good design.
"Other simple but valuable lessons have also helped me greatly in my career. Dean Joanne Healy and Chair Maria Luisa Rossi prepared me to become a communicator, leader and worker between the platforms. Here at Kohler, among the executive levels, these qualities are expected of designers."
As an industrial designer at Kohler, Lee specifically designs for the company's Kitchen and Bath, Global Faucet Team. He is currently working on kitchen retail faucets and kitchen and lavatory wholesale faucet products.
"These projects are to be released pretty soon, and we are more than excited to see how things turned out," he said. "We hope our customers would also be very excited regarding new products that are soon to come."
One of the aspects of this career that surprised Lee most was being expected to jump into projects that have already been in progress.
"Upon my first day, I was exposed to four different projects across the platform and pulled into the meetings immediately to give input," he said. "Therefore, there was a lot of catching up and studying to do. I think the key is to be open to learn and adapt immediately with positive attitudes."
While he has been at Kohler less than a year, Lee looks forward to the potential that he can offer in his role as a designer.
"I am a little disappointed with all these new tech-savvy products that come and go within few months," Lee explained. "These approaches are going opposite of where great designers Etore Sottsass and Victor Papanek went. My life time goal is to deliver at least one long lasting 'good' design that will be remembered among many."
To check out more of Lee's work, visit http://www.donghalee.com/.
- Industrial Designer